When Eva Breitenbach was in graduate school at MIT, a medical scare led her to seek a therapist’s help. She was vocal about the support she found in therapy, and before long people around campus started coming up to her and telling her about the trouble they’d had connecting with mental health therapists.
“People were telling me they called dozens of therapists and not gotten any calls back, that they were just really overwhelmed and didn’t know where to start, or that they’d gone in and after the first session just thought ‘This person is not a good fit for me,’” Breitenbach says. “I started talking to therapists and realized that for their part, they also struggle to find the clients who are the right fit for their expertise and for their interests. I started thinking there has to be a better way to match up the people who are looking for therapists with the therapists that are looking for patients.”
That “better way to match” became Sophia, a startup that launched last year. Sophia—the Greek word for “wisdom”—connects people searching for therapy with therapists that offer the right type of treatment and are accepting patients.
People looking for therapists often end up getting no response from clinicians’ offices, according to Breitenbach.
“Therapists are basically small business owners,” she says about small private practices. “There’s a lot of administrative work required. If a patient isn’t a good fit for the therapist, it can be pretty time-intensive for the therapist to call the patient back, play phone-tag with them, and actually connect them with someone who will be a good fit. And they’re not really paid for that time.”
To make the match, Sophia gives both patients and therapists questionnaires. Patients describe why they are seeking therapy and information on time and location preferences, while therapists answer a more extensive set of questions about their treatment style, their availability, and whether they take insurance. Patients have the option to speak with someone from Sophia after filling out the form to discuss options further.
Sophia has over 700 patients and 135 therapists in its network, according to Breitenbach.
“You know what you’re dealing with, but you don’t necessarily know what to look for in a therapist,” Breitenbach says. “We do have a lot of experience knowing what types of therapy are going to be the best fit for what symptoms, and so we do that matching on your behalf. We’re almost like the translator between the patient and the therapist.”
Breitenbach says she went into Sophia from the point of view of a patient, but by working with therapists and seeing their excitement about the service, she has come to appreciate how much it can offer therapists as well—from a stream of patients who are the right fit to less time on administrative tasks, which means more time with patients.
As Sophia’s network of therapists grows, Breitenbach and her team are able to get more and more precise with their matches.
“I was talking to a therapist who was saying that she sees a broad spectrum of people, but the clients that she really feels like she has a superpower with are former athletes who are really competitive, working at high-intensity jobs, and are trying to figure out what’s a healthier way to think about where their purpose comes in life and what work/life balance might look like and what the source of their competitive drives are,” Breitenbach says.
The team is also working to build payment and scheduling into Sophia’s patient portal, which would create a streamlined, simple way for people to pay for and set up appointment with just a few clicks. In addition to making the process easier for patients, Breitenbach says the new software would cut down administrative time and effort for therapists even further.
Insurers don’t typically reimburse therapists much, so many therapists don’t accept in-network insurance. Because of this dynamic, Sophia chooses not to match people within their insurance, opting to make the best match from a health perspective.
“It’s linked to the way that our society still thinks about mental health, where it’s not quite at the same level as physical health,” Breitenbach explains. “In the long run, I would love to be able to effect change there, and actually to be able to get enough clout to push those up, but in the short-term you kind of have to work within the system sometimes, unfortunately.”
Patients do not have to pay anything extra to use Sophia. The price of their first therapy session goes to Sophia, and therapists do the session for free. Breitenbach is dedicated to keeping the matching free for patients.
This story appeared in the Do Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription. A previous version of this article was published online on Nov. 14, 2017.